The most difficult time to offer workplace compassion is when we need it the most

A lesson taught by a special cat

Henry shared a lesson about life just before his death.

Henry modeled an important life lesson just before his own death. (Thank you, Carol, for sharing this wonderful picture of Henry.)

On Wednesday morning, I walked into the restaurant to meet two colleagues for breakfast. We were planning to put the final touches on our workshop entitled “Handling Workplace Conflict: Lessons we can learn from animals.”

As I approached the table and started into my seat, Melinda immediately began talking, quickly but not in a panic. She said, “We have a glitch.” I listened to the events that had unfolded that same morning for our missing colleague, Carol. She had found her cat of 18 years, Henry, in the field behind her home, unable to move. Knowing the last several weeks had been creating some signs of declining health, Carol and her husband realized that this was serious.

Tears started to gently roll down my face and Melinda’s as she told me a bit more about Henry’s life. The irony — and beauty — of this situation was front and center in our minds. Here we sat, on the morning of a workshop that the three of us had been planning for a year, a program devoted to the lessons animals teach us, and Henry was becoming a beacon of our beliefs.

With Carol and Henry in our thoughts, Melinda and I worked through the scenarios of the workshop’s agenda, deciding on options that addressed the unknowns of whether or when Carol could join us. We left the restaurant, not knowing what would happen next, but confident it would all work out the way it should.

And it did.

Carol called Melinda after Melinda and I had arrived at the training location and gave the sad news of Henry’s death. She said she was on her way and would be there shortly. When she arrived, she told us that she couldn’t imagine a better way to honor Henry, participating as we originally planned. I marveled at her composure, knowing she had within the last 90 minutes, lost a long-time family member, friend, and companion.

She then told us more details of the morning, providing evidence of what we knew: animals are important teachers. After she and her husband had retrieved Henry from the field, everyone was together on the porch. The reality was settling in and Carol sat sobbing. Henry felt her emotion and though difficult to move, he made his way over to her and softly placed his head on her foot. This incredible gesture of sensitivity, warmth, and compassion is not just touching, it shows the depth of his understanding of the situation and his willingness to do something about it. In his simple but profound way, he offered an important lesson for us in life even in moments before his death: Be present. Be kind to others. Even when it’s uncomfortable to do so.

Much too often in the workplaces, we hesitate to offer such a caring act, especially in moments of stressful conflict. We worry about how it might be perceived or if it’s appropriate. Or maybe we think it is not needed or necessary.

Yes, I do see acts of kindness in the workplace, often for those easy moments, like celebrating a milestone event, or helping when someone is ill or going through a tough time. Even then, it is reserved or inhibited in some way.

Yet in more challenging situations, when someone has made a mistake or made you mad, it’s not quite so easy to be generous with support. But that’s when we need compassion the most. By opening up lines of communication during the worst of situations, we build trust with the other person, allowing understanding that will move us towards resolution. The absence of caring and curiosity stifles what makes the strongest relationships possible.

We need to take our cue from Henry. Faced with pain, uncertainty, discomfort, and sadness, yes even death, Henry did something remarkable. He reached out to care for the other person instead of focusing on his own needs.

Thank you, Henry, for modeling the behavior we should all follow. Another fine lesson from a beautiful animal.

What stories do you have that illustrate when compassion has been offered during a difficult time? How did it impact the situation? Share your thoughts below for us to learn more.

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  1. Karen Johnson on June 28, 2013 at 10:16 am

    Once again, your writing is so profound and insightful. thanks

    • Robin on June 28, 2013 at 10:30 am

      Karen, thank you so much. Your feedback makes me feel wonderful. You, like Henry, are generous in spirit. Such a wonderful trait!

  2. Laurie Bartolo on June 28, 2013 at 10:31 am

    Hi Robin! What a wonderful post. I am so sorry for the loss of Henry – he sounds like a special cat. I had something similar happen when we had to put our old Lab Chester down. He had been in declining health and it got to the point where it was obvious that it was time to say goodbye. As clear as it was, it is still a gut wrenching decision to make. I’ll never forget how his behavior that day – from the way he lifted his tired head to the expression in his eyes as the day unfolded – was all about consoling us in our grief as if to say, “it’s okay”. Chester wasn’t the most graceful dog in life, but he was a role model of grace in his passing and I learned so much from him about life and love in that dreadful moment. I have a memorial page about him on my personal blog at https://dogmama.me/chester/

    • Robin Eichert on June 28, 2013 at 11:08 am

      Laurie, thanks for sharing the beautiful tribute to Chester. It does seem that animals have a graceful way of helping us see things in a less judgmental way. Clearly a lesson that Chester and Henry understood. Thanks again so much for adding your story.

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